Approaching a Jewish biography through the process of writing: students create fictional diary entries based on Eni Wygodzka’s interviews and learn about her life, dreams, and experiences.

Teaching history classes in Germany

When students enter the history classroom, they should learn from the past to manage the present and make the future a better place. That is in theory logical and evident. But what about everyday situations with students? How can I as an experienced teacher, make them understand what happened to Jews in Germany and Europe during the Nazi regime? Their lives, their needs, their problems are far away from what happened 80 years ago – teachers often say. Really? On the one hand they are, on the other hand they aren’t! This is where Centropa and its digital archive comes into the picture, or why the story(s) need to be told from the beginning and not from the end.

In German history lessons, the period 1933-1945 is legitimately covered in at least 15-20 lessons many facts, including the arise of the Nazi regime, its main perpetrators, the Shoa, the Second World War, to name but a few. But sometimes we forget that the sorrow told happened to families, mothers, fathers, children, friends, neighbours… . Behind the inconceivably high number of victims there are biographies that need to be told – again and again to understand the real dimension. So I have seen that personal stories help students to identify with the victims and make their fate a part of them. Fortunately, Centropa has collected these biographies and administers stories and tells them by publishing them with photos and films. And we can easily use them in our history lessons.

One of these stories is about the lovely person of Eni Wygodzka – a Jewish woman who called herself “kind of wild“ when she was young. The way she described herself piqued my interest and I wanted to introduce her to my history class.

Eni Wygodzka

Eni Wygodzka was born in Germany into a German-polish Jewish family in 1922 – not untypical for that time. She was raised in Germany and in Poland, so Polish, German, and also Yiddish were spoken at home. She herself and her family saw themselves as Jews (not Polish, not German) when she was a child, she didn’t have much contact with Polish people in her childhood. When she talks about religion, traditions, and customs and food as a part of daily life routine – cooking kosher was always a topic for her. We can learn from the interview that she was conscious about her family living between traditional and modern life. In the person of her father, she describes that vividly – him being confronted discussing with his son. Incidentally, Eni didn’t care much about religion. We also learn about her time at school and above all about her dreams and experiences. Finally, she speaks about the time after the Nazi occupation in Poland and how she could escape.

My history class – background and prior knowledge

My history class consists of 20 students, some of them have a migration background (Turkey, Poland, Egypt, Italy) and none of them is into Jewish religion or traditions. I have been teaching them for three years and we made our way through different times in history. When talking about history, most of the students are more interested in social issues than politics. They are used to working on projects and can organize themselves in group work in terms of what is important about the topic and the task at hand.

Eni – a role model for my students

A young girl or later a woman, whatever her religion or social background she had, sought and found her way in an incredibly difficult time and under incredibly difficult circumstances. Sometimes she offended her family and her religious surrounding. But most of all, she asked questions that, for various reasons, not every girl in her position, at her age and at that time, was able to ask. So she did. That makes her special and of course very interesting for my history class. Can she be a role model for young girls nowadays? Or also for students from immigrant backgrounds, who are often confronted with the feeling of not being part of the majority society. Being “young, wild and unsteady“ as she called herself, can perhaps be something that young people see within themselves and are not able or dare to live with and show in public, such as religion or sexuality. So here we have to ask, what social conventions, what traditions and customs shape our students? Can they reject them to self-develop themselves properly or live happily with them?

How Eni Wygodzka came into our classroom?

When you work with students at the age of 15 or 16, these questions are part of your daily business. So I decided to bring Eni Wygodzka into my classroom for several reasons: my students, especially the girls, are struggling with the same issues and problems today; some of my students have a migration background or belong to a religious minority; my students should learn about Jewish life and about a Jewish girl of their age who has everyday problems and has to deal with them; and at least my students should learn about Jewish life in Germany and Europe as a part of it and as self-evident.
So I decided to take that biography to work on the topics mentioned. I asked them to read Eni’s biography and see if they could find some topics that they were also facing. Topics and terms they could identify and were familiar with. The focus at this stage was not on the “big“ history around, but on learning about a young girl who lived long time ago. This worked very well.

Tasks for the students

So we spent a lesson with reading and talking about Eni. We used the Centropa website, the interviews and especially the texts from the Herstories projects to find out as much as we could about her. Each student could use their own tablets to scan texts and collect information in general. From the beginning, the class got involved in the story and got to know her as a person they wanted to know better. So, as a second task, I asked them to write down topics which they could find in the biography and which they were also familiar with in their own lives. “School“ was an example I gave them to start with.  Because it was so obvious. They did this in groups of four, each student had his or her own tablet to read through the texts and interviews, compare the pictures and contribute their own ideas.

Topics in the biography itself

The next lesson we collected all the ideas from the groups and tried to categorize them. The result was overwhelming. On the one hand because I myself had written down exactly the same topics, and on the other hand, because my students told me that they liked working on with Eni’s biography for two reasons: they could identify themselves with her in some way as a person and wanted to learn more about her Jewish background. So we ended up writing down the following topics:

  • School and Job
  • Childhood, Youth, and education
  • Family
  • Religion, traditions, customs
  • Language
  • Escape

After that I organized the class again and asked them to form new groups – so that from now on they should work together with classmates who were interested in the same topic. The new groups found each other very quickly and each group chose a topic. The students reread the texts to gain more details and they also checked the internet for further information about, e.g. Jewish religious traditions and customs. So it was a very intensive time as all the students were working on mind maps and filling in all the blank spaces with facts.
What to do with all these facts and information? I had an idea and introduced it to my students.

Narration in history classes – a competence we train regularly

Teaching history includes different dimensions of competences that are self-evident – such as orientation, evaluation, expertise, or narration. So we discussed in class how to tell Eni’s biography in a different way, but using all the information she gave us through the interviews and the family photos. And all the information my students had collected and categorized. How could we add a personal touch to all this?

The next task I introduced to them: rewrite her story by writing diary entries; use the topics and the information you collected for an entry; 

So every day has a special topic and theme. We talked about language as well and decided that the student’s language can vary from the language Eni would have used. That was our connection to my students‘ lives. So finally, we got six entries the students created in their groups.

Writing or storytelling in general, is a perfect way to understand history and to give it a new but more personal touch. Eni was interviewed, but did she have the chance to tell her life as she lived it? No, so we decided to write diary entries – yes, it does not sound like the most creative idea. But as every history teacher knows, when students are confronted with Anne Frank’s diary, they are interested in history than anything else. So why not write entries in which the knowledge we have gathered through our fingers is compared with Eni’s eyes? And hopefully find a language she could have used, with thoughts she had, but didn‘t tell anybody, with hopes and fears as well.

Diary entries, podcast – an idea for a project

The work on the entries worked out very well and we read them in class. The students themselves put them in a proper order, added some personal things where necessary and tried to adopt the same language level. In the end, the product was an emotional, very personal text based on what the students had read about Eni. We thought that she could have written this diary herself – who knows? As a conclusion some of the students made a podcast and we took part in a youth competition organized by Centropa.

If you have ever wondered what you can do with Centropa‘s interviews and photos? Here is one example. There are so many different stories on the site – find them and share them with your students.